Emma is another of my favourite and my best on Twitter. When she asked me what sort of post she should write for Aussie Owned and Read, I suggested a post on how to write short stories, because that’s something she excels at, and I struggle with. Especially the “short” part. Verbose? Me? Nah. — Cass
There are thousands of ways to write short stories, and the internet is thick with all kinds of writing advice. The more I learn about writing short fiction, the more I feel that it’s an intrinsically personal experience. Learning how to write a short story could easily be rephrased, “How do YOU write a short story?”
Good short stories are essentially complex little puzzles. They’re akin to a mechanical watch, filled with moving parts. Short fiction can contain a miniature universe, or be specific to a single day or scene in just a few thousand words. While there are many ways to approach writing a short piece, here are some tips that might be helpful:
Don’t Worry About Length
We used to ask my high school creative writing teacher “How long does it need to be?” to which she would reply “How long is a piece of string?” Most of the time I’ll be able to figure out pretty quickly if the idea I’ve had will fit in a short story, but I sometimes get paranoid if it feels “too short”, i.e. if it tops out at a bare 2000 words. Conversely, sometimes stories I think will be short when I’m initially writing them will grow in the telling and end up double the expected length. Just have a crack and see how you go. Even if you come up around the 1000-1500 mark, you’re fine. There are plenty of stories that have achieved amazing things with a tight word count. Rachael Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” is one such example.
Top and Tail
It can be interesting to repeat a symbol or a motif that featured in the opening few paragraphs at the end of your piece. It can help you stick the landing and it’s a great way of measuring what has changed throughout the story — is the character no longer afraid of something, for example? Or does a familiar person or location take on new import based on what’s happened throughout?
Get to the Guts
You don’t have much room in a short, so no waffling! You don’t necessarily have to start with BOOM FIREBALL but get to the gist in the first paragraph. It’s important to consider why you’re starting with this day, why right now? Make sure you’re telling the story from the most important point. The story should be set in a pressing point in your characters’ lives.
Agency, Agency, Agency
Yeah, your characters need to DO things. They need to have power or struggle to attain it. They need to make decisions, fuck things up, get their hands dirty. If they’re coasting through the story without having an impact, it makes it really difficult to give a shit.
I’m huge fan of writing while listening to music. It helps me to focus and to keep my brain on track (I am so easily distracted; you have no idea). My all-time favourite music app for this is 8tracks, which you can listen to for free online or via the downloadable app. You can pick a theme, or a TV show, or a couple of keywords — “action, adventure,” or “cry, instrumental”. It has some wonderful hand-picked playlists for any theme you could possibly imagine. Here’s my favourite to get you started:
Save the Day – http://m.8tracks.com/melsparrow/save-the-day
First Drafts are Always Shit
Always. ALWAYS. Well, OK, you might somehow magically nail it on the first go, but DO NOT WORRY if everything is terrible the first time you write it. That’s what editing is for. There are also some great critique groups out there like Critters (for beginners) and Codex (if you’re a little more established) that are filled with people who can help you to work out the kinks.
Don’t (Necessarily) Skimp on the World-building
You can do a lot with just a few small details. It’s absolutely worth spending some time thinking about the way the world is set up, even if you just throw in a couple of small elements to indicate a larger whole. For example, you could think about the geography of your setting, the politics, the different religions and cultures within your world and how they shape the inhabitants. Try to slip in a few hints along the way to give your story some depth.
Writing lots of short stories will do wonderful things for your craft. Even though there’s nothing quite like writing novels to help you to learn to write novels, short stories can help you to get good at so many things — conveying detail, nailing voice, smoothing out prose. You also have enormous opportunity to play. If you’re just starting out, it can be a wonderful way to experiment, especially if you write across a lot of genres or traditions.
Writing short fiction can also help you to spot your weaknesses. In the past I’ve struggled with character agency (“Stop just reacting to everything, damn it! Steer your goddamn life!”), and working through a bunch of shorter pieces has really helped in that respect. A friend of mine struggled to nail the emotions in their stories, and has managed to write their way out of it by sheer force.
Finally, read widely. There are hundreds of stories online for free. You can start by looking at stories that have been sweeping recent awards, or by asking people to suggest their favourites.
Best of luck!
Emma Osborne is a fiction writer and poet from Melbourne, Australia. Her work has appeared in Apex Magazine, Shock Totem, Aurealis and Bastion SF. She starts dance-floors and bear-hugs with the slightest provocation.